Newly-named Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta has been an important figure in U.S.-Israel relations a number of years. The Forward’s Nathan Guttman wrote of Panetta:
Four decades in the political limelight have made newly minted Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta a familiar and trusted figure to the Jewish and pro-Israeli communities.
A middle-of-the-road politician known for his management skills, Panetta has taken the helm at the Pentagon at a time when defense cooperation between the United States and Israel is as strong as ever, a trend that should continue under his guidance, Israeli and American officials say.
Guttman highlighted some of his impressive achievements while serving as CIA director:
As CIA director, Panetta did not take the Iranian threat lightly. Although his focus was on Afghanistan, an issue that provided him with his highest achievement to date - the killing of Osama bin Laden - he also oversaw a reform process in the CIA that led to the changing of the official stance of the United States toward Iran’s nuclear program. Under Panetta, the CIA revised its 2007 National Intelligence Estimate, which had originally concluded that Iran was not aspiring to achieve nuclear weapons. The intelligence-working assumption Panetta is leaving behind in the CIA is that Iran is indeed in pursuit of military nuclear capabilities.
During his recently completed stint as CIA director, Panetta worked closely with Israeli intelligence, which reportedly has shared information about Iran and about terror threats.
‘It is important to understand that despite differences on Middle East policy, the military and intelligence relations between the U.S. and Israel were extremely strong,’ said Jim Colbert, policy director of the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs. ‘Director Panetta was closely involved on these issues.’
Guttman also wrote about Panetta’s personal interest in Israel:
Panetta shared a house in Washington with a prominent Jewish roommate, Democratic New York Senator Charles Schumer. This partnership helped lead to Panetta’s first visit to Israel.
In 1991, Schumer helped put together a congressional mission to Israel, organized by the Anti-Defamation League. Panetta was the senior congressman in the group, which also included Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat George Miller and Rep. Martin Russo, an Illinois Democrat. Both Miller and Russo were also roommates of Schumer and Panetta.
The numbers cruncher made an immediate positive impression on the Israelis.
‘He was very open and very interested,’ recalled Jess Hordes, the former ADL Washington director who accompanied the group in Israel. Panetta, a devout Catholic, showed special interest in Israel’s Christian religious sites. ‘He was very sympathetic to Israel, its story and its people,’ Hordes added.
The article also describes Panetta’s early dissatisfaction with the Republican Party and how he found with a home within the Democratic Party:
Panetta took his first steps in politics on the Republican side, where he served in the Nixon administration, working on civil rights issues. Frustrated by what he saw as a rightward turn in the GOP, Panetta switched sides and ran for Congress as a Democrat in his home district in California. He served nine terms and won the influential position of chairman of the House Budget Committee before being asked by President Clinton to be his White House chief of staff.
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